‘Geneva 3’ faces hurdles, conflicting agendas
DAMASCUS - Despite disparate positions and complex issues taken to the negotiating table, the United States, Russia and other major powers are determined to convene Syria peace talks in Geneva on January 25th.
If they get off the ground, as the major powers insist, the talks would mark a breakthrough in Syria’s bloody civil strife, which enters its sixth year on March 17.
Widely referred to as “Geneva 3”, the gathering comes as diplomatic bickering intensified between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powerhouses and key players in Syria.
Iran is a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who Riyadh wants deposed before negotiations start. Saudi Arabia supports opposition groups against Assad, who is also backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He dispatched troops and military gear to rid Syria of Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants seeking to topple Assad.
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in early January after mobs, reacting to the execution of a Shia cleric, attacked the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. Riyadh’s relations have traditionally been bumpy with Tehran, which it accuses of spreading influence and rival Shia brand of Islam in a region long dominated by Sunni Muslim governments.
Syrian rebel groups insist they would not take part in the peace talks unless humanitarian codicils in the latest UN resolution on the conflict are implemented. The groups, which include the powerful Islam Army, mentioned articles of the resolution that call for humanitarian access to all in need and the cessation of attacks on civilians.
The opposition also wants the Damascus government to take goodwill steps, such as a prisoner release, before negotiations.
Another sticking point is the list of groups invited to attend versus a list of “terrorist” organisations excluded from the meeting.
Jordan, delegated by the United States, United Nations and Russia, prepared an invitation list. However, a Jordanian government official with access to the negotiations said the original document was being expanded slightly to incorporate groups Saudi Arabia insisted be present, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which Washington considers a terror organisation.
The official spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition that he is not identified further.
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and his team “will continue working hard to issue the invitations in order to ensure maximum inclusivity, with a view to starting the intra-Syrian Geneva Talks on 25 January”, de Mistura’s office said in a statement.
Assistant US Secretary of State Anne Patterson said Washington and Moscow were working “very assiduously” on defining the terrorist groups. They have discussed “the terrorism issue in the whole Syria- Iraq corridor” and military and intelligence contacts were continuing.
Patterson said talks were on track for January 25th and pointed out that she had had a “good conversation” with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and senior officials from Britain, China and France.
The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution on December 18th endorsing an international Syria peace process. It gave UN blessing to a plan negotiated by world powers in Vienna that calls for a ceasefire, talks between the Syrian government and opposition and a two-year timeline to create a unity government and have elections.
Syria is ready to take part in peace talks in Geneva and hopes that the dialogue will help it form a national unity government, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al- Moualem said in a January 18th statement.
Saudi Arabia hosted a conference in December in an attempt to create an opposition bloc. Meeting participants agreed to set up a 34-member secretariat to supervise peace talks and that committee would select an opposition negotiating team.
The Syrian civil war was sparked by a government crackdown on pro-democracy activists in peaceful demonstrations in March 2011, which later developed into a bloody civil war. ISIS militants used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands wounded or missing and about 4.3 million Syrians have fled the country.